Reading updates from the Police Foundation led me to Malcolm Hibberd’s recent blog on league tables, and I felt the need to reply. While I agreed with some of the arguments made, especially about the better use of data to improve policing, it did seem to ignore the reality of the impact of police league tables. I’d like to highlight these under the three broad headings of motivation, simplification and unintended consequences.
It is clear that the perceived benefit of league tables is that they improve performance by motivating low performers to emulate those performing better. I’m assuming such league table would be national and break performance down by force, and potentially Basic command Unit. This assumes that more motivation is required, that policing is not already sufficiently motivated to perform, and that additional pressure to do so is beneficial and is a good way to improve performance. However, this perpetuates a performance regime of downward pressure and undermines the ongoing professionalisation of policing – the shift to a more considered and evidence-based model of policing, treating officers as professionals with high levels of intrinsic motivation and drive. I’d suggest that reverting to crude motivators like league tables is not only a retrogressive move, but also undermines service-wide efforts to develop our workforce.
League tables are a way of ‘ranking’ performance. They are simplistic, taking data out of its wider context and delivering simple better/worse assessments. The complex and interconnected nature of police activity and performance is hidden. Quantitative measures of real or actual policing performance are difficult to capture so proxy measures are used, and some themes can be ignored altogether. Inevitably weekly or monthly time scales are adopted. This all leads to pressure to isolate small elements of the larger system and to concentrate on short-term activity. The pressure generated rarely leads to exploration of the wider themes, the interconnections, and the role of partners and communities, but drives a single-agency focus on quick wins and switching of resources from yesterday’s priority to today’s.
This leads to my final point, which is the reality of unintended consequences from external pressure to improve specific performance measures. Policing sadly has many examples: the laudable desire to increase the detection rate of burglaries, for example, led to over emphasis on the retrospective use of ‘taken into consideration’ detections in the past, not just taking resources away from stopping current burglary offences, but also encouraging some fairly unethical behaviour. The pressure to reduce robberies has led in the past to officers poring over reported crime, seeking to find any way to reclassify a robbery as a theft from the person, or any other offence, so the key indicator of robbery looks good. Or, as an example on a national level, the desire for more and more convictions, fed by league tables, that created structural incentives for forces to go for the ‘quick wins’ of offending by school children, rather than to tackle less ‘performance oriented’ crime (the time-consuming and difficult task of taking on organised crime, for example). This led to a generation of young people brought into the criminal justice system not because it was felt the best way to improve their behaviour or make communities safer, but because national performance pressures including league tables, delivered it.
There may be readers who feel that the behaviours I’ve described above could never happen today, that they are all examples of the odd ‘bad apples’ from a time that has long passed. I would counter that the risk is still real, and that these sorts of (unintended) outcomes need to be seen as natural outcomes of competitive policing performance measures such as league tables. Many other public services have their own examples (e.g., hospital patients on trolleys moved to corridors to reduce time spent in A&E) and it is time we moved beyond such crude performance tools.
I will finish by stating that the use of data on performance is essential for improving policing, and I am not against measuring or comparing performance per se, but we need to improve the ways in which we do this to overcome the issues I’ve identified above, as part of our ongoing professionalisation agenda. Better that we look to the future, work towards developing a more professional police service that is able to acknowledge and tackle the complexity of the tasks in front of it, is able to intelligently use data, work with partners, and develop its staff’s intrinsic desire and ability to perform well and to provide the best service possible to the public.
Jamie Hobday is a police inspector with a large urban force in England. He is a keen advocate of evidence-based practice and is currently researching collaborative approaches to public safety.